Getting to Know David Wechsler

There aren't a lot of albums that Karen, Amelia and I all own, but Piñataland's Songs for the Forgotten Future, Vol 1 is at the top of all of our lists. We use it regularly while warming up, during improvisations and for a long time we each wanted to build a dance piece using our favorite track, Velocity. In 2005 for Always and a Day... Amelia finally found the right place to use it and became the first of us to use Piñataland music for a Monkeyhouse piece. Since then I used Devil's Airship off that same album for Sublaxation in 2006. I am currently working on a new piece that uses a song from Piñataland's David Wechsler's album, Vacations, called Salt of the Earth in addition to a song David recorded just for the piece. Karen also hopes to use a song off the new Piñataland album, Songs for the Forgotten Future, Vol 2, for a piece she has in the works.

Needless to say, all of us at Monkeyhouse are incredibly grateful to both Piñataland and David Wechsler! If you or anyone you know are in Brooklyn this weekend, you should join me at Barbes (376 9th St. at 6th Ave) at 10pm on Friday the 13th so you can fall in love with them for yourself! In celebration of this weekend's performance, Nicole took some time to interview David:

NH: What is your earliest memory of making music?
DW: My earliest memory is of really hating piano lessons. After bribery didn't work and my parents decided I really didn't like it, I was allowed to quit. Then I took it up again on my own and really enjoyed it, so I started taking lessons again, hated them and quit. After that I decided I would play piano, but not well.

NH: Did you think when you started that you'd be making music for dance pieces?
DW: No I assumed I'd be playing on street corners. Turns out piano's too heavy so I took up guitar, but it turns out you need some kind of permit.

NH: Is your music being used for companies or choreographers other than Monkeyhouse?

DW: A long time ago I collaborated on a song for a piece by Adrienne Truscott (who performs these days as a Wau Wau Sister) on a song that she wrote and I arranged and recorded. It was a big, fun samba number. Then 10 years later you asked me to record something. These are my two experiences.

NH: When and how did Piñataland start?
DW: Doug Stone and I went to college together and started a little band there that played polka music, mostly to annoy people. Then we got out of school and I went back to Chicago and he went to New York until I got a call saying I should come out to New York and start a band with him. Turns out, that band was Piñataland.

NH: Piñataland uses so many interesting and sometimes little known historical events as part of your songs. What made you choose history?
DW: Well, we started off doing these complicated comedy songs. I say "complicated" because I'm pretty sure we were the only ones that thought they were funny. Most of them involved some megalomaniacal narrator saying all kinds of nonsense set to a happy polka beat. But it's hard to write a comedy song that you still want to sing after 4 times. Then one day we got a gig to do a song on a Comedy Central show. (Click here to see!) They flew us out to LA for the taping and it was very nice and a lot of fun. But at the end we realized that if we had to keep singing comedy songs we'd get sick of it really quick so we came back, fired the band and took a break. During the break Doug announced that we should write history songs and came up with Coney Island Funeral, about the elephant that was executed at Coney Island. We just started cranking them out after that, though truthfully Doug writes most of the historical songs. I just write songs and then try to cram them into some historical context.

NH: Where do you find these events and what makes you choose the ones you do?
DW: Well, both Doug and I read a lot of history books. Usually I'll be reading something and some story will resonate with some other topic I've been thinking about. I think Doug thinks more strategically about the kinds of songs he wants to write and the topics he looks for.

NH: I use
Devil's Airship as part of Sublaxation, a piece I built in 2006. People often ask me about the music in Q&As because they want to know where the clip that is the introduction to the song comes from.
DW: It's from a song called Mysterious Moon sung by Ada Jones and Billy Murray (words by A. Seymour Brown; music by Nat D. Ayer) released in 1912 about the same airship sightings that Devil's Airship is about. Unfortunately, I don't even have a copy of that recording anymore. Not sure what happened to it. There's another version of it by Edna Brown and Billy Murray which you can find online here but for some reason I can't find the Ada Jones version anywhere.

NH: Besides Piñataland are you working on any other projects?
DW: Yeah, I've always done a lot of home recording and now that you can do that on a laptop and actually have it sound decent, I've been home recording some albums. The last one I did was Vacations back in 2007 which was all songs about traveling and I'm halfway through another one called The Decline of America Part One: The Bush Years which is kind of look back at the past eight years. It's not really a political or a history album; most of the songs are personal about events that happened from that time period, although there's one angry song about the Spanish-American war from 1898 so I guess you can take all of the above with a grain of salt. Anyway, it's been interesting for me to record it since I'm using a lot of rhythm samples and in general the whole album is a lot more rock and modern sounding than anything else I've done. I hope to be done with it by April. It's part of a planned Decline of America trilogy. Part three's coming in 2012 and part two should be done by 2020.

NH: Part three is coming out before part two? Why?
DW: I have a better idea of what part three will sound like and be about conceptually. As a three part series of the Decline of America, part one is causes, part two is the actual falling apart and part three is the result. I have a vision of the place that America will be after we're not on top anymore which I'm interested in exploring but don't have a good feel for the actual falling apart section so I'm going to hold back on that one.

NH: Did you go to school for music?
DW: I studied ethnomusicology, mostly Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian drumming. Most of that influence gets squashed in Pinataland but you can hear it every once in a while. For a while I was a pretty good conga player and percussionist but I dumped it all for some reason and started playing accordion with Pinataland.

NH: Do you feel like there were advantages/disadvantages because you did/didn't go to school for music?
DW: Not really. Except for when I was studying drumming I've never been that interested in being a good player and while I think I could probably play a lot more music if I was better trained, I'm mostly interested in playing my own music. The few times I've sat in with other folks it's been nice to do a show and actually get paid, but I get bored quick. Studying the Cuban and Brazilian drumming has probably taught me more about composition and music than the college courses I took that actually talked about those things. Come to think of it, I used to drum for dance classes back in college.

NH: Do you see a lot of dance?
DW: Wow, y'all are gonna hate me, but to give you an idea of how much dance I've seen in my life, I just saw the Nutcracker for the first time this past Christmas. When I studied the ethnomusicology stuff I would do dance, because in those cultures the music and dance are so tied together, and I got into Capoeira for a while, so I've seen lots of traditional dance concerts but even those are pretty far in the past.

NH: Where can people find copies of the Piñataland albums and your solo album? Is there somewhere people should be looking out for more information about the release of your new album?
DW: Good luck. We ain't in stores. You can either get a CD at a show or by emailing me or you can download stuff from the usual online suspects — Amazon, iTunes, Emusic etc...

NH: Are there other musicians/bands/albums that you think people should check out?
DW: I've recently been on a late 60s-early 70s Brazilian pop music kick. It's just about the best stuff ever recorded. Check out the mid-period Jorge Ben stuff like his '69 album or Negro e Lindo, or early Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso... Chico Buarque is amazing. So much great stuff. As for new albums, I was kind of disappointed in 2008 for music. I was trying to put together a best of year mix and while there's some great songs, I couldn't really find too many albums I loved. My favorites were ones from Shelley Short, the Felice Brothers, Curtis Eller's American Circus, Palliard and the Old Believers. I'm looking forward to the new Eleni Mandell album that comes out on 2/17. Her 2007 album "Miracle of Five" was probably the last album I totally fell in love with and played to death. Probably means I'll be disappointed in the new one...

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